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Don’t ever think “It can’t happen here. . . .”

January 19, 2017

First they came. . . .

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

— poem/statement by Martin Niemöller, German Protestant pastor during the Nazi era

He was held eight months without trial and when his case eventually took place he was found guilty of “abusing the pulpit” and was fined 2,000 marks. As he left the court he was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp to be “re-educated”. Niemöller refused to change his views and was later transferred to Dachau.

A Festivus for the Rest of Us

December 24, 2016

At Christmas-time, bombarded as we are with sentimental commercial messages aimed at getting us go buy-buy-buy, it’s pretty easy to get wrapped up in what we tend to think of as traditions. The retail decorations and the piped-in music carols start in November. A lot of those “traditions” are not so old, they only seem that way. Santa Claus made his appearance in 1821, Scrooge and Tiny Tim in 1843, and within a few decades had become the dominant images associated with what was once a religious holiday. Even for those who live in warm places, snow seems to have become important, immortalized in the song “White Christmas” only in 1942. Charlie Brown had his first Peanuts Christmas in 1966, the same year Kwaanza came into being.

Is that all the time it takes to make a tradition? What about those of us who remain apart from the retail frenzy, or those of us whose own personal take on the solstice holiday does not involve religious imagery, or fake snow and Santa Claus suits, or artificial trees and candles. What about the rest of us?

There’s another tradition taking hold, at least as old as Kwaanza, conceived in 1966, popularized in a TV show in 1996, and now showing up in holiday displays all around the country. It’s “Festivus,” for the rest of us.

It was first observed on December 23, 1966, in the household of author and editor Daniel O’Keefe, the father of TV writer Dan O’Keefe, as an alternative holiday in response to the commercialization of Christmas.. The word Festivus in this sense was coined by the elder O’Keefe, and according to him the name “just popped into my head. The English word festive derives from Latin “festivus”, an adjective meaning “excellent, jovial, lively” which in turn derives from festus “joyous; holiday, feast day”. The phrase, “a Festivus for the rest of us” originally referred to those remaining after the death of the elder O’Keefe’s mother, Jeanette, in 1976; i.e. the “rest of us” are the living, as opposed to the dead.”

Customary practices include the traditional Festivus Dinner: meatloaf on a bed of lettuce. No alcohol is served, but quaffing from a hip flask is encouraged. Immediately following the meal comes the “Airing of Grievances, in which each person, opening with the words “I got a lotta problems with you people, and now you’re going to hear about it!” tells everyone else all the ways they have disappointed them over the past year.

The “Feats of Strength” are celebrated immediately following the Festivus dinner. The head of the household selects one person at the Festivus celebration and challenges them to a wrestling match. Tradition states Festivus is not over until the head of the household is pinned. Failing to pin the head of the household results in Festivus continuing until such requirement is met.

The traditional “Festivus Pole” is a bare aluminum pole, originally the trunk of a 60’s style aluminum tree shorn of all its branches. The aluminum pole was not part of the original O’Keefe family celebration, which centered on putting a clock in a bag and nailing it to a wall. “Festivus miracles” seem to consist chiefly of wagers won, and bets collected.

Since the notoriety given to Festivus by the Costanza family in the TV show Seinfeld aired in 1996, the holiday has won wider adoption nationwide.

In 2005, Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle was declared “Governor Festivus”, and during the holiday season displayed a Festivus Pole in the family room of the Executive Residence in Madison, Wisconsin. In 2010, a CNN story featuring Jerry Stiller detailed the increasing popularity of the holiday, including US Representative Eric Cantor’s Festivus fundraiser, and the Christian Science Monitor reported that Festivus was a top trend on Twitter that year. In 2012, a Festivus Pole was erected on city property in Deerfield Beach, Florida, alongside religious themed holiday displays. A similar Festivus Pole was displayed next to religious displays in the Wisconsin State Capitol, along with a banner provided by the Freedom From Religion Foundation advocating for the separation of government and religion. For the third year in a row in 2015, a Festivus pole has been displayed at state capitols in Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Washington.

But according to Dan O’Keefe, “The real symbol of the holiday was a clock that my dad put in a bag and nailed to the wall every year…I don’t know why, I don’t know what it means, he would never tell me. He would always say, ‘That’s not for you to know.’”

But for those of us who grow weary of the hype and hoopla surrounding the Christmas holiday in the way its come to be celebrated, every year, remember this: There’s a Festivus for the Rest of Us.

Émile Zola: “I am waiting for something else. . . .”

November 21, 2016

Émile Zola–quoted from Naturalism on the Stage (1881)—-

“I am waiting for something else. . . .I am waiting for someone to put a man of flesh and bones on the stage, taken from reality, scientifically analyzed, and described without one lie. I am waiting for someone to rid us of fictitious characters, of these symbols of virtue and vice which have no worth as human data. I am waiting for the environment to determine the characters and the characters to act according to the logic of facts combined with the logic of their own dispositions. . . . I am waiting for everyone to throw out the tricks of the trade, the contrived formulas, the tears and superficial laughs. I am waiting for a dramatic work void of declamations, majestic speech, and noble sentiments, to have the unimpeachable morality of truth and to teach us the frightening lesson of sincere investigation.”

Zola may still be waiting. I’ll try to do my part to let him rest. . . .

Playwrights on Playwriting: Arthur Miller

November 4, 2016

“So, there was a kind of confidence underlying this play, a self-disarming quality that was in part born of my belief in the audience as being essentially the same as myself. If I had wanted, then, to put the audience reaction into words, it would not have been ‘What happened next, and why?’ so much as ‘Oh, God, of course!’ ” [Arthur Miller, speaking about Death of a Salesman, quoted in Playwrights on Playwriting]

As I am weaving scenes from a marriage into a play, a modern—or perhaps not so modern—or perhaps timeless—tragedy arising from the intimate preoccupations that precede and ultimately lead to unforgivable betrayal, I myself should heed Miller’s words.

The subject matter may be lofty, the characters and their deeds at least superficially familiar, but the playwright’s intent must be to write to his audience, about themselves. Things they can understand on a deep-seated physical level, a feeling that “This is—or it could be—me.”

No audience wants to be preached at. They want to see themselves, doing what they do in their ordinary lives, making the mistakes they regret, or will regret. Therein lies the drama, or the tragedy.

“Those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it.” Part Two

September 22, 2016

Here’s a quotation from an insightful book on world history: ”This was a classic example of a weapon _______ was to use increasingly: exaggerating and distorting the view of his opponents, and applying crude labels to them, as though from a position of unique and guaranteed rectitude.”

Feel free to fill in the blank above, with the name of one of the two contenders in this contentious 2016 presidential campaign. This being a non-partisan blog, I leave it to you to figure out whose name—Trump’s or Clinton’s—fits best.

I swear, I don’t know myself whose it should be. In the quotation, however (taken from Geoffrey Hosking’s admirable work on the history of the Soviet Union from within, “The First Socialist Society”) the name is Josef Stalin. Like Hitler, he rose to power within an established, somewhat democratic system.

Science and Poetry: Kin?

September 7, 2016

Marianne Moore: “Do the poet and scientist not work analogously? Both are willing to waste effort. To be hard on himself is one of the main strengths of each. Each is attentive to clues, each must narrow the choice, must strive for precision.”

[quoted from “Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews”]

Miss Moore (1878-1972) is of the old school of poets, coming into her own as a poet in the 1920s. But the idea she puts forth here is timeless, even more relevant today when science is deified by some and condemned by others. As is the art poetry itself.

What is the point of either? To dig and dig and dig to find some indelible, incorruptible truth. Often the excavation is pointless, the results negative or at best inconclusive.

Does that mean that the poet or the scientist should cease their endeavours.

Ask any poet, any scientist. Their answer is your answer.

No beast so fierce: Richard III lives, on stage in Almeida’s film

August 16, 2016

In this cinematic Shakespeare’s Richard III from London’s Almeida Theater, the production opens with an open grave, an archaeological dig from which the twisted backbone of the real Richard III held up to light. Sliding glass panels slide over the grave, covering it for the scenes to follow. But the grave is always in sight, open and waiting.

It takes a moment to become accustomed to the black business suits, the starkly modern lighting, and the cell phones, all of them a jarring imposition of the modern on to Shakespeare’s Elizabethan phrasing. But it is only a moment, and we are caught up in a world of treachery, deceit, and hunger for power not so different from the one we inhabit today.

Ralph Fiennes is impeccably cast. From the moment he hobbles onstage, drooling and bent, he is King Richard III, and evil incarnate is not long in showing his face. His brother Edward is the new king, weak of constitution, an easy target for the hunchback who would be king. When minions carry onstage the shrouded bones of King Henry VI, dead like his son Edward the Prince of Wales, by Richard’s hand. The widow Lady Anne (Joanna Vanderham) has entered with the cortege to mourn her loss, and here follows one of the most sexually charged seductions committed to cinema. One mad with grief, one simply insane, they spit and fight with mounting fury, until the one with no reason prevails. There is no consummation here, but Richard has shown his hand—he will stop at nothing to satisfy the hunger of his insatiable desire for dominance.

Every scene that now unfolds reveals the breadth of that hunger, and the depth of his duplicity. The deceit is unrelenting. No one is spared, neither the innocents caught up in his deceit, nor his willing accomplices in all this. His own brother Clarence, his young nephews and heirs to the throne, Lady Anne who he seduced and slew, even his loyal henchmen Hastings and Buckingham, one by one they fall to his hand. Victims innocent or led by their own treachery to Richard’s hand. Only Richmond and Stanley get away.

It is the women who give this play its touches of humanity. They see what the men cannot, and love what no man can. Aislίn McGuckin as Queen Elizabeth, widow of Henry and the mother of Lady Anne, especially stands up to the ogre, face to face and voice to voice in the long and grueling scene that ends in her rape. The monster stops at nothing. Dominance is everything to him, his beginning and his end. This is a lesson for our own times as well.

The claustrophobic set design helps to reinforce this point. Subtle hints abound. A background of round stone wall—the tower of London, the ultimate prison shielded at times by scrims and curtains—lit from a recessed corona above.

One point that was sorely missed was the one possible glimmer of redemption through self-awareness that at least becomes possible in Richard’s final soliloquy, “I am loved by no one, I love no one.” Absent this rare, almost touching possibility, his words become yet another rant of self-pity. The audience is too worn out by his slimy words to care anymore. This monster has no humanity at all, he has become not even just another monster in a cruel world, but a caricature of one.

In the final battle scene, Richmond of the halo of golden hair prevails. Richard fights with all the fury of his madness, but cannot save himself. Three times he offers up his kingdom for a horse, three times he is denied. He falls, face forward, into the waiting grave. England is saved and all will be well.

The film has shown but a few times at the Rafael, its brief run is now ended. It is well worth seeking out, in PBS listings or streaming video if available. It was made for the big screen, and best watched on the largest screen you can find. Its chilling conclusions on the uses of power cannot be overmagnified.

Theatrical Prodduction: Almeida Theatre, London

Artistic Director Rupert Goold

Casting by Joyce Nettles

Run at the Almeida Theater in London June 7-August 6, 2016.